If there's one overriding reason why the Green Bay Packers figure to contend for NFC North championships next year and for many years after that, it's because of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
While the Packers are set most likely for the next decade at the game's most important position, the rival Bears, Vikings and Lions enter this offseason continuing their never-ending search for a legitimate starting quarterback.
Rodgers, who threw for 4,038 yards in his first season as a starter, ranked fourth in the NFL in that category as well as sixth with his 93.8 passer rating. Who was next among NFC North quarterbacks? Chicago's Kyle Orton, way down at 25th with a 79.6 rating.
Just as impressively, Rodgers threw 28 touchdowns against only 13 interceptions. Detroit's five quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, Minnesota's Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson combined for 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and Chicago's Orton and Rex Grossman chipped in 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Here is a look at the NFC North quarterbacks.
The long wait for Rodgers to take over for the legendary Brett Favre as the starter after being taken in the first round of the 2005 draft was worth it for himself and the team that put its trust in him to lead the offense. Rodgers didn't flinch amid the acrimonious soap opera between team management and Favre during the summer before the three-time league MVP was jettisoned to the New York Jets.
Rodgers' auspicious debut as a pro starter featured a lot more good than bad. He completed 63.3 percent of his passes, threw for more than 4,000 yards, had 28 touchdown throws to only 13 interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 93.8. A play-it-safe game plan orchestrated by coach Mike McCarthy limited Rodgers' throwing miscues, and every once in a while, he was able to show off his strong arm.
Rodgers, though, was guilty of holding onto the football too long in the pocket on occasion, a big factor in the 34 sacks he absorbed. Yet, he was savvy and nimble on his feet, ranking third on the team with 207 rushing yards and scoring four touchdowns. Rodgers also proved to be a gamer, a la iron man Favre, by not missing a game after suffering a severely sprained throwing shoulder in Week 4.
The biggest knock on Rodgers coming out of the season is he wasn't able to pull out a late-game victory — the Packers were 0-7 in games decided by no more than four points.
Flynn, a seventh-round draft pick, leapfrogged fellow rookie Brohm, a second-rounder, in the preseason for the No. 2 job and appears to have a bigger upside than the highly touted Brohm.
Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson. Backups — Gus Frerotte, John David Booty.
Jackson might be out of opportunities to be this team's starter. Benched after the Vikings lost their opening two games in favor of veteran Gus Frerotte, the second-round pick in 2006 returned in December after Frerotte suffered a broken bone in his back. Jackson rallied the Vikings to a victory at Detroit and then threw a career-high four touchdowns the next week in a victory at Arizona.
But after a solid performance in a loss against Atlanta, Jackson took a step back in the regular-season finale against the Giants and was back to his old struggling ways in a first-round playoff defeat against Philadelphia. Jackson had an interception returned for a touchdown by Asante Samuel, and his 45.4 passer rating was a season low. Jackson finished 2-4 as a starter and could return as a backup.
Frerotte did not hide his displeasure with losing his job because of injury. Despite the fact he signed a two-year contract last April he might not be back. Booty, a fifth-round pick last spring out of Southern California, spent the season learning on the sideline but isn't going to be ready to start in 2009. This means the Vikings are likely going to have to look outside for a starter.
Bears: Starter — Kyle Orton. Backups — Rex Grossman, Caleb Hanie.
In the first half of the season, it seemed as if the Bears' quarterback problems were over, as Orton generated a solid passing attack with limited weaponry and played almost error-free football, going six straight games without an interception.
But his performance fell off after a midseason sprained ankle, although he did a decent job with a weak supporting cast. He will go to camp as the starter, but the Bears are expected to add more depth, since Grossman is all but gone as an UFA. It's possible the Bears could bring in a veteran to challenge Orton for the starting spot.
"I'm not convinced 100 percent, obviously," general manager Jerry Angelo said of Orton. "I believe in Kyle, but until Kyle puts a (full) year together, we can't say for sure. I saw some really good things out of Kyle, particularly early on in the season, (but) he didn't have the second half of the season that he did the first half."
Hanie showed good athleticism in the preseason as a rookie, but he's still a No. 3.
Culpepper came out of semi-retirement, hopped right into the lineup midseason and struggled. Then he suffered a shoulder injury. Orlovsky came closest to winning a game, but while he was safe, he was unspectacular. His big blooper — running out of the back of the end zone for a safety at Minnesota — will forever sum up the 0-16 season. Stanton has been set back by injuries in his first two seasons and still has a long way to go in his development. Henson remains a reclamation project. Kitna was unhappy after Mike Martz's firing and never bought into Jim Colletto's offensive approach. When he struggled early, the Lions used a back injury as an excuse to shelve him.
"Obviously there's a lot of needs," new coach Jim Schwartz said. "I think, obviously, the most important position on the team is quarterback. It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne."
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.